Hope and Squalor at Chungking Mansion

Travel Stories: Karl Taro Greenfeld explores Hong Kong's notorious black-market bazaar and budget accommodations, and one possible over-populated, multi-ethnic future for us all

08.13.07 | 11:24 AM ET

Chungking MansionPhoto via Wikipedia

Chungking Mansion is the only place I have ever been where it is possible to buy a sexual aid, a bootleg Jay Chou CD and a new, leather-bound Koran, all from the same bespectacled Kashmiri proprietor who can make change for your purchase in any of five currencies.

It is also possible, while wandering the alleys, hallways and listing stairwells of Chungking Mansion, to buy a discount ticket to Bombay, purchase 2,000 knock-off Tag Heuer watches or pick up a counterfeit phone card that will allow unlimited calls to Lagos, Nigeria. Need a tattoo? Piercing? Dental work? Yellow fever vaccination? Cialis? No problem, just don’t ask to see a pharmacist’s license or medical school degree. Or, if your schemes have all run aground and truly desperate measures are called for, you can sell your passport and order up a forged new identity. You can disappear here. Thousands have. Most of them by design.

I was 24 when I first visited the Mansion, stopping en route from Tokyo to undetermined points West. My friend Trey and I, encouraged by a blandishing Delhian dwarf wearing an NWA T-shirt, had boarded a shuttle-bus from Kai-Tak airport that deposited us before the dizzyingly busy entrance. He guided us to a 5th floor, B-block guest house, assuring us, “You will be stupendously pleasure with this accommodation,” before opening the door to a mini-van sized chamber strewn with loose electric wiring and a sort of fecal mildew staining the walls.

There was a sit-down toilet, on which the previous tenant’s footprints were still visible on the plastic seat, and a working hand-shower of sorts. Plus, it was hard to beat the price in famously expensive Hong Kong—about five bucks a night. Within two hours, we’d fallen in with a Canadian man who described himself as a “Leftenant-General” and told us he knew where we could get injected with a mixture of one part snake’s blood and one part Demerol.

“Wouldn’t that kill us?” We asked.

“Demerol?”

The Leftenant-General shook his head, “Best pain-killer in the world.”

“No, the snake’s blood.”

“Hasn’t done so yet.” He assured us, thumping the chest of his safari-vest.

For hundreds of thousands of visitors and immigrants to Hong Kong, Chungking Mansion provides the first waystation into what has been known since the 1997 handover to China as the Special Autonomous Region. Take everything that Disney’s Epcot Center represents—the squeaky-clean, child-safe, good-natured cheer of painless globalism—and then cover it in mutton fat, dope resin and human excrement and you’ll get Chungking Mansion. Known as “The Armpit of Asia,” Chungking Mansion is the claustrophobic home for about 20,000 residents from all over the globe. Yet the Mansion also provides a glimpse into one possible over-populated, multi-ethnic future for all of us. This 17-story bazaar of curry stalls, discount electronics vendors, pirated CD and video CD stores, brothels, meth dens and guest houses, provides a glimpse of a dystopian, post-technology future where tribes, cultures and races co-exist in bustling, jumbled squalor.

Think “Blade Runner” or “The Matrix,” set up by a Bollywood production company and recast and reshot by John Woo. It’s not just the tiny rooms and dim halls and perpetual damp and the wires and phone lines running up and down and across every vertical surface, there is also a sense of displacement and a vague anxiety that wash over you as you thread your way between Pakistani businessmen carrying bulging suitcases stuffed with pirated video CDs and a trio of over-made up, platinum blonde Russian working girls squeezed into impossibly tight red and black leather cat suits. Here are the turbaned and beaded and mustachioed masses, displaying everything that is glorious and terrifying about a truly multi-ethnic world. The cliques of barrel-chested Nigerians hanging out beside the traffic-jammed road, the gangly Bangladeshi touts on the stairs, the Chinese hookers by the money changing queues talking on cell phones, it is exhilarating and confusing all at once. Yes, you discover, we can all get along. But it will take every ounce of respect, patience and grace we have to do it.

There actually was a movie set here, 1994’s “Chung King Express,” directed by Wong Kar Wai, an anthology about Indian drug smugglers, Chinese cops and short-order cooks. “The place was always a mystery to me,” says Kar Wai, who grew up in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon, in the shadow of the Mansion. “The people living in and living on it seemed very different from those I encountered. You can’t help but have fantasies about what was actually happening inside. Of course, as a child, I was prohibited by my parents from visiting the place.”

No one seems to remember the building’s architect, and the Hong Kong Land Development Corporation has no record of the original design. Perhaps the architect would prefer to remain anonymous, for among the structure’s foibles is that all public space, and plenty of private apartments as well, receive no natural lighting. According to Valerie Portefaix, a Hong Kong architect and co-author of Mapping Hong Kong, it would be geometrically impossible to create a darker building. Day and night blur within the Mansion; neon streetlights serve as stark illumination for the dim halls and stairwells.

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Karl Taro Greenfeld has written three books about Asia, including Speed Tribes and last year's China Syndrome. His work has been anthologized in the "Best American Sportswriting," "Best American Nonrequired Reading" and "Best Creative Nonfiction" collections. He is currently a correspondent for Conde Nast Portfolio. This story was selected for the "Best American Travel Writing 2008" anthology.

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8 Comments for Hope and Squalor at Chungking Mansion

Slappy san 08.19.07 | 2:16 PM ET

Articles like these make me sorry I have never had the pleasure of seeing the world.

jesus 09.14.07 | 8:22 PM ET

Chungking Mansions is a more urban Khao San Road. Been there dood dat.  jesus

Liza 10.24.07 | 4:43 AM ET

This is easily the most inaccurate description/writeup of a place I have ever read.

This is just the typical stereotyping of a place and a culture and people that is different from the author.

OH well, I suppose the author has to eat and writing anything less sensational may not make copy.

Like they say “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”

Article Creator 04.03.08 | 6:21 AM ET

OMG how could they live on such conditions?..

Hong Kong Travel 04.10.08 | 11:37 PM ET

“There was a sit-down toilet, on which the previous tenantís footprints were still visible on the plastic seat…”

Hahaha, That pretty much says it all about Chungking Mansion.  I visited but never slept there before, bet it would be a wild experience.

Knee Ya Ha Ha 04.25.08 | 1:08 AM ET

So what you trying to say here exactly ?

Inside job ?

John Sack 06.17.08 | 1:37 PM ET

Graffiti sighted in Mansion stairwell, circa 1992: “Welcome to Chungking Mansion - as seen in ‘Blade Runner’”

painkiller 07.21.08 | 6:17 PM ET

Once upon a time I happened to drink blood a snake. There was much not pleasantly. :-(

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